Kate Davis was the recipient of the 2016/17 Margaret Tait Award, an initiative set up to commission a new moving image work supported by LUX Scotland and Glasgow Film Festival. The outcome of the award was the 16-minute video Charity, a work that Davis has recently shown in two exhibitions: Nudes Never Wear Glasses at Stills, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2017 (with an exhibition text by Lauren Dyer Amazeen) and Charity at LUX, Waterlow Park, London (with an exhibition text by Amy Tobin). Charity has also been shown in film festivals in Belfast and Cambridge.
Anneka French finds out more about the influences upon Charity and the impact of the award.
Kate Davis, ‘Charity’, HD video installation, 2017, Installation view: ‘Nudes Never Wear Glasses’, Stills, Edinburgh, 2017
Anneka French: You showed your video Charity at LUX in London and recently at Stills in Edinburgh. How did you arrive at its central subject of breastfeeding?
Kate Davis: I became interested in breastfeeding as a starting point for a new work whilst I was learning about breastfeeding my son. I wanted to explore how notions of breastfeeding may relate to wider themes of care. Charity builds on the essence of my practice, which often uses feminist approaches to rethink the ways in which histories are produced and perpetuated. The production of human milk to feed babies is usually unrecognised as ‘work’ – in economic terms it is unpaid and of no financial value. Yet it has inspired artworks for centuries. Charity was a way for me to investigate these contradictory determinations of value through the fallibility and subjectivity of my art practice and personal experience.
AF: Can you tell me more about Charity’s connections to gender and labour?
KD: At root the impetus for Charity, was to ask myself and others to look at art historical images of mothers (or daughters – in the depictions of ‘Roman Charity’) breastfeeding as if they were representations of paid labour – not in an ironic or half-hearted way although I recognise that people may find it humorous or uncomfortable – but I wanted to genuinely ask if those images could be reviewed as representations of economic work and why they might not have been considered in those terms previously? The feminist economist, Marilyn Waring, has had a great influence on my practice and in particular her direct questioning about how and where value is placed in relation to women’s lives.
AF: Can you describe the importance of other artists such as Margaret Tait and Jo Spence within your work? What dialogues do you hope to form with their practices or ideas?
KD: I’ve made several works which are responding to Jo Spence’s work and she continues to be an incredibly important and inspiring touchstone for me. Whilst developing Charity, I was thinking about the photography workshops Jo Spence and Terry Dennett ran with different community groups – helping people embed cameras in everyday objects to enable them to see and value their world from a different perspective. I took a similar approach and placed a camera within or on everyday objects which I was using for repetitive domestic tasks (such as sweeping a floor, dressing a child). I intended these filmed sections to act as interruptions throughout the film – bluntly jolting the viewer and narrator from the ongoing monologue, and into the midst of a domestic activity – however mundane. I wanted to explore what those shifts, in daily life and work, can enable or obstruct.
I developed the script for Charity by reading other women’s experiences of breastfeeding and writing about my own. The script was also influenced by the character of Greta, who is played by Gerda Stevenson, in Tait’s exceptional feature film, Blue Black Permanent. I was drawn to the endearing and complex character of Greta who wrestles with her desire to fulfil her creative self and also to meet her personal responsibilities as a mother and wife. I approached Gerda Stevenson to ask if she would be interested in working with me on the film and thankfully she was! So the monologue is delivered in Greta’s voice as she describes a new job she has undertaken, and that job is breastfeeding.
Kate Davis, ‘Brick Wall 1’, framed silver gelatin print, 2017, Installation view: ‘Nudes Never Wear Glasses’, Stills, Edinburgh, 2017
AF: Why is the appropriation of historical materials significant for you?
KD: My works often originate from an encounter with a particular artwork or event that bothers or compels me. Such encounters might happen in museums, galleries, archives or through my own research. In the studio, I then work with a range of media (including moving image, drawing, printmaking and bookworks) to develop an intense visual dialogue which probes the aesthetic and political ambiguities of specific art works and their reception or re-evaluates marginalised historical moments. I have found the quote below, by Paolo Freire, a useful reference. I am interested in how an exhibition can enable the audience to operate as the ‘subjects of history’ Freire describes and how my work can claim the past, and our readings of it, as an ongoing process of imagining and re-remembering.
‘We need to be subjects of history, even if we cannot totally stop being objects of history. And to be subjects, we need unquestionably to claim history critically. As active participants and real subjects, we can make history only when we are continually critical of our very lives.’
– Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation, 1985
AF: At Stills your photographs Nudes Never Wear Glasses were displayed on false brick walls. What have been your intentions with this backdrop for the exhibition?
KD: The works in Nudes Never Wear Glasses were displayed on three temporary, purpose-built brick walls. Whilst evoking familiar domestic and institutional boundaries, the brick walls were intended to act as a metaphor for the histories which are shaped and hardened within and beyond those boundaries. My artwork often contests the notion of a ‘hard history’ in order to claim the past as a critical and ongoing process of revisioning.
A friend recommended Sara Ahmed’s text, Living a Feminist Life to me. I found Sara’s feminist exploration of brick walls (and in particular the quote below) resonated with my practice and was a helpful way to begin thinking about the exhibition Nudes Never Wear Glasses at Stills.
‘The wall is a wall that might as well be there, because the effects of what is there are just like the effects of a wall. And yet not: if an actual wall was there, we would all be able to see it, or to touch it. And this makes an institutional wall hard. You come up against what others do not see; and (this is even harder) you come up against what others are invested in not seeing.’
– Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017
AF: What impact has the Margaret Tait Award had on you?
KD: The Margaret Tait Award is a commission to produce a new moving image work which is supported by LUX Scotland and Glasgow Film Festival. The award honours the Scottish artist, writer and film maker, Margaret Tait (1918 – 1999) and the commissioned film is premiered at Glasgow Film Festival. The moving image work I produced was Charityand I am indebted to LUX Scotland and Glasgow Film Festival for all their critical and practical support in the realisation of the work. The Award has also led to the two exhibitions we have discussed which have both been developed around Charity.
AF: What are you looking to explore next?
KD: Most recently I have been working on a new installation of drawings of makeshift dolls which were made from a range of basic and often seemingly incongruous found materials, such as bones, rags, a dried bean or the heel of a shoe. I am currently showing the drawings alongside a selection of these dolls (which are usually housed in the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh) in a group exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh (NOW at Modern One running until 19 February 2018).
Commissioned and published by Photomonitor, December 2017